An Enfant Terrible Stumbles Upon the Vietnam War
“…the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
– Ulysses S. Grant (speaking of the Mexican War)
Comes now Nick Turse, forty years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, with Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a compendious retelling of the horrors once inflicted by the United States of America against a tiny South East Asian adversary and its entire population. As a foundation for this grisly retrospective the author has assembled hundreds of sources, virtually all of which date from the time of the original telling, and to which he has joined the testimony of veterans and veteran observers along with the voices of Vietnamese victims unavailable for interview until long after the war had ended.
The impulse to resurrect en masse the record of this dirty war, what Turse characterizes as its “hidden history,” resulted from an epiphany the author experienced in 2001 at the National Archives. As a graduate student “researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans,” Turse confides that he “stumbled upon… the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group… more than 300 allegations of… atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators.” The files, Turse says, were “long hidden away and almost forgotten.”
Well, yes and no. A decade earlier, these same files had been scanned and duly cited by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, whose Four Hours in My Lai was motivated by a similar premise, that the notorious massacre of March 16, 1968 had suffered from “twenty years of cover-up and willed forgetfulness.” Nick Turse, quite rightly, goes much farther in applying his indictment of “forgetfulness” to the entire Vietnam conflict, where, in the once familiar mantra of antiwar veterans who had witnessed these horrors first hand, and then publically condemned them, My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg. But by now, Turse laments, “the other atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory.”
Come to think of it, what hasn’t? “Popular memory,” assuming the concept isn’t completely spurious, is at best a labile thing. Moreover, what can one expect the popular memory to retain? We might with some charity assign a collective D- to the powers of retention of historical detail – informed or otherwise – by our fellow Americans. The comic genius Groucho Marx devilishly exhibited this national deficiency on his television quiz show in the Fifties. When a pair of contestants failed to answer a single question correctly on some current or historical topic, Groucho offered them a consolation prize if they could tell him who was buried in Grant’s Tomb, or what was the color of Washington’s white horse; sometimes they couldn’t.
The example may seem trivial, but the point still holds. Can Vietnam hope to fare any better if we are to depend on popular memory to remind us of its truths? What if anything beyond the most abbreviated commonplaces does popular memory recall of our prior “Vietnams” – the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War in Cuba and the Philippines, Central America for over a century – our dark tradition of turning superior fire power against weaker nations we target for the sake of our destiny to dominate and pillage? As for Iraq and Afghanistan, the public didn’t even catch them the first time around.
A fellow Vietnam veteran and memoirist John Ketwig relays an anecdote that illustrates the problem sharply. Ketwig wrote me recently of “a long ago conference at Gettysburg College [where] … the audience and presenters consisted of professional soldiers from the nearby Army War College at Carlisle, PA.” During the morning session Ketwig “along with W.D. Ehrhart and other prominent Vietnam [War] authors” served up the by-then familiar inconvenient truths about the criminal nature of the war they’d recently been fighting. After which, Ketwig recalls, “an old lifer Sergeant Major spoke, pointed to us and very specifically stated, ‘These whining, complaining Vietnam veterans will die off. I want to assure you, we have written the history of the Vietnam war your grandchildren will read.’”
If the Old Lifer imagined he was addressing History-with-a-capital- H, clearly his prediction was overwrought by wishful thinking. The bibliographic catalog is well stacked against the diehard apologists, not least the self-justifying screeds by those who cheered and managed the debacle and their revisionist disciples who have followed. The real whining would come, of course, from the likes of Robert J. McNamara. No amount of breast beating about dangers born of Cold War tensions has made what lies beneath the My Lai iceberg suddenly vanish from the historical record, to which Kill Anything That Moves now provides a striking addendum.
Obviously Nick Turse’s ambition for this book ranges far beyond serving scholarly mills, or reaching whatever limited market this subject still commands among its core readers. Turse intends Kill Anything That Moves as mass-shock treatment to override the public’s amnesia, aggressively demanding that we re-examine Vietnam’s horrors with even greater intensity today than we did forty to fifty years ago. But how does this agenda square with the public mood? That query returns us to the chilling side of that Old Lifer’s prophesy, because the views on the Vietnam War our millennials are forming today suggest strongly that the indoctrination he boasted of is well underway.
Citing a recent Gallop poll, journalist Robert Sheer reports that “a majority of Americans ages 18-29 believe sending U.S. troops to Vietnam was not a mistake… the young now approve of an irrational war in which 3.4 million Indochinese and 58,000 Americans died…” Holding steady across the age divide, “70% of those 50 or older… with contemporary knowledge…” retain their beliefs in the war’s essential wrongness. This leaves Nick Turse addressing an aging choir that already knows the hymnal by rote, while among his own peers, not to mention Sheer’s “18-29 year olds,” his thunder confronts a formidable headwind.
When Kill Anything That Moves was launched in such a promising whirl of enthusiasm from the more respectable corridors of the Left media ghetto, it fleetingly appeared as if Turse might indeed have re-set the historical clock. But the dust stirred by that initial thrust settled quickly. And the sound of silence greeting Turse’s book from the elite opinion-making heavyweights, whose reviews and news stories are essential for gaining the kind of national recognition the author and his sponsors had clearly hoped for, has been deafening.
Perhaps because so much of what Turse has reassembled already appeared – if not in every specific, certainly in kind – within its pages while the war was in progress, The New York Times, for example, may judge Kill Anything That Moves as twice-warmed news. Such thinking would provide the paper’s managers all the sanctimonious cover they’d need to help stymie any genuinely healthy re-examination of American crimes against humanity in Vietnam, oft reported, but never officially acknowledged, much less repented. But why would the Times and the other great organs and outlets of bounded propaganda, whatever else divides them, want to re-air the real history of Vietnam today? The last thing the elite political class wants is to reconnect Vietnam to the present, certainly not in the direction that Nick Turse has failed to provoke them. They know Vietnam was not a mistake; it’s a template.
To jump start a renewed public conversation about Vietnam that aims at eliminating that template as a future military option – presumably Turse’s more elusive and essentially unpainted target – apparently demands a bigger boost than one explosive charge dredged from the archives can deliver. This assumes that the Vietnam template isn’t already losing favor among national security managers. In which case, asks W.D. Ehrhart, still in the conversation long after that conference at Gettysburg, what particular end is Turse’s so-called “hidden history” meant to serve beyond exhibiting “a randomly presented litany of mayhem?”
Bill Ehrhart has spent decades since being wounded during the Battle of Hue bringing to literature, classroom and public forums – in consort with a large community of like-minded veterans – compelling eyewitness accounts of the systematic nature of atrocities committed by the U.S. military throughout Indochina. In a recent email, having read my essay criticizing Jonathan Shell’s breathless review of Kill Anything That Moves, Ehrhart expressed the
opinion that “Schell’s reaction to Turse’s book is ridiculous.” What Schell gushes over as novelty, Ehrhart calls “old news.” And, after examining the book, he dismisses it with a terseness both unsparing and poetic: “disjointed, disorganized, without direction.”
But that’s hardly the worst of it, and these next sentiments of Ehrhart’s deeply echo my own. “If Turse were a true journalist and scholar, he would be shouting, ‘Why didn’t anyone listen to veterans who told these stories forty years ago?’ He ripped off our history shouting – Look what I discovered! – and presented the case as if it’s being told for the first time.”
Turse’s claims to originality are slippery enough, but the “rip off” exceedingly worse. Regarding the former we are told that, as the author’s research deepened over the years, he “began to get a sense of the ubiquity of atrocity during the American War,” a hip way of showing he knows how the Vietnamese refer to the same conflict. And elsewhere, “…I came to see the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese non-combatants… was neither accidental not unforeseeable.”
We might overlook this silly pretense were it not at the expense of a consciously organized veterans’ resistance which arose following the belated revelation of My Lai, and operated within the larger antiwar movement where the narrative of Vietnam genocide had been long evolving. In the very language and political formulations that Turse now appropriates, often literally, a veritable legion of veterans loudly proclaimed those very revelations that the author wishes to showcases as novel insights. Moreover, we based our evidence for the ubiquity of American war crimes on our actual wartime experiences, as we helped sway the public to finally reject the war we ourselves had been fighting in. These are the unique historical episodes that Turse completely ignores.
In his account antiwar veterans appear, not as a movement making history, but as a handful of individual “whistle-blowers within the ranks or recently out of the army…” whose denunciations were “marginalized and ignored.” For the rest, Turse buries our unprecedented story in a thicket of footnotes, devoid of their original contexts, and where only a disciplined scholar might be able to reassemble them into anything approximating what actually occurred. A reader may judge for herself, if the public testimonies on U.S. war crimes policies in Vietnam delivered by antiwar veterans during the final years of the conflict were, as Turse suggests, “marginalized and ignored.” She might discover that the veterans were being heard at the time, if not listened to, much more than Turse is today.
Nick Turse’s decision to airbrush from the record the provenance of the Vietnam war crimes narrative, and the roles of veterans within it, defies explanation. As already noted, the scope of research under display in his copious list of sources makes evident that he knew this story well. My own emails with the author, who had seen my pre-published version of this history while still in dissertation form – thick and unwieldy as he rightly chided me – date from 2007. And while it touches me less personally, though only slightly, Turse’s use of similar methods for downgrading the stature and significance of the American antiwar movement is equally perplexing.
No old Movement hand intimately familiar with those times could fail to notice how Turse prunes the most powerful unarmed force of domestic resistance to governing authority in U.S. history to the status of a sideshow. Here’s one particularly ham fisted sample of his distorting style. He characterizes as pitiful Movement efforts to reveal the true nature of the war through “pamphlets, small press books and underground newspapers,” that, if even glancingly noticed by empowered insiders, were dismissed as “leftist kookery.”
When one turns to the footnote for this passage to scan the names of these presumably obscure “pamphlets, small press books and underground newspapers,” one finds instead that the printed matter antiwar forces produced to advance their war crimes accusations was packaged by the very titans of American trade and newspaper publishing: Random House, Simon and Schuster, Holt Rinehart, Vintage - the quality paperback imprint, Avon – the mass paperback imprint of the Hearst Corporation, a couple of smaller but respected houses like Beacon and Pilgrim Press, two or three international publishers, their reputations unknown to me, and The New York Times.
I understand that many of the interested parties who may see this essay will simply react to the issues I have raised here with a resounding, “So what?” Maybe Turse got some of the story wrong, they might admit, even in ways that make him appear amateurish, if not perverse. But he nails the big picture bearing on the carnage and destruction, to a large degree intentionally orchestrated by the U.S. during its aggressive war against Vietnam. But I would take issue even with that. On the thin narrative thru-line where Turse strings the graphically descriptive details of one atrocity after another, he seems to weigh the vile handywork of individual GIs operating in the field on a par with the far more deadly toll that sprang from cold hearted policies of mass murder designed by high level commanders, political bureaucrats and academics: the indiscriminate use of artillery and air power to remove and disrupt populations, and which caused the overwhelming number of deaths and casualties among the South Vietnamese.
Turse certainly reports on, and strongly denounces, pacification’s deadly harvest of non-combatants. But by placing so much emphasis on the 300 Pentagon investigations that originally ignited his zeal for this subject, the statistical significance of his soldier-initiated atrocities pales before the ranks of two and a half million draft aged men who’d served in Vietnam during the war. Let’s assume those 300 cases of substantiated atrocities are actually representative of thousands of unreported heinous incidents committed by thousands of individual soldiers – which I firmly believe was the case. That still would leave a substantial body of other veterans with clean hands, to the degree any soldier at war can make such a claim. Let’s just say they weren’t involved in rape, torture, mutilation, pre-meditated murder or manslaughter, or willful destruction of livestock or property.
A very large number of veterans therefore might feel unfairly tarred by Turse’s sweeping brush, assuming they ever became aware of his book in the first place. I sense this would matter very little to Nick Turse. As he makes no effort to conceal in a recent essay, “Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy”, Turse seems to harbor a truly bizarre resentment toward war veterans, notably the many he has interviewed over the years and now accuses of not coming clean to him about the things they’d seen or done. Reading that, it occurred to me that Turse had learned very little about veterans when his research was initially focused on PTSD. He seemed to have missed the fact that deep issues of trust determine who veterans will talk to about war, and as is commonly understood, that they generally talk only with each other.
But now Turse is pissed, and he engages in a bit of shadow boxing with veterans as ghostly adversaries. “I know a lot about war without fighting in one,” he defiantly lectures some unidentified veteran other. And, it has cost him. But he expresses pride because this “just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by,” and who said it was? Anyway, this could be one digression too many, so read his essay cited above and judge for yourself. My own take is that Turse is suffering from the equivalent of penis envy in having been denied firsthand experience with warfare. He has had to find compensation, but his vicarious knowledge of war is made harder to come by because veterans are deceitful, and won’t “come clean.” Turse’s judgment here is clouded by his temper tantrum.
Turse’s other signal observation is that accounts of Vietnamese viewpoints and victimhood are largely absent from the 30,000 volumes covering the American representations of the war. This is hardly surprising since the opportunities for serious research and interviewing in Vietnam are relatively recent. By the time mass tourism had blossomed there, returning veterans have typically expressed astonishment that the recovered Vietnam they find today is totally unrecognizable from the country they had once fought in. This is the Vietnam in which the kind of research Turse brags about is finally possible. Long before that, veterans established humanitarian projects in Vietnam and have for decades been in the forefront of campaigns to raise public awareness of the human suffering still afflicting so many Vietnamese who survived the war, not least the toll in human lives from herbicide poisoning and unexploded ordinance, all reaching now into the third and fourth post-war generations.
Neither Bill Ehrhart nor I, among thousands of others – veterans and non-veterans alike – have ever abandoned through our writing and political action, and in classrooms where we have taught or been invited to speak, our commitments to keep the flame of truth about the real American war in Vietnam from being extinguished. To that protracted struggle, Nick Turse has added his flawed and impassioned contribution. But the impulse that will lead, if ever, to the cleansing of our butchery in Vietnam from the national conscience, is unlikely to come from collective, much less individual, efforts of the progressive camp.
It is an odd fact of our culture that, when controversial topics are avoided or suppressed, they can sneak back in as entertainment. Who knows if Vietnam won’t suddenly slip into the popular media slot that’s been vacated by the Greatest Generation? It’s a fair bet. But when, and in what form, it’s impossible to predict. Will the space be dynamic enough to air the most damning facts, and here Turse’s indictment could be included when the papers are served. How much energy remains in the aging antiwar crowd to re-fight these old battles? Is the Old Lifer bound to win, or will the young break the propaganda spell? And, if our side won, what would that look like? It’s something to think about. We’re not waiting for the Rapture. Some of us are already preparing for the opening, if and when it comes. Here’s a previous essay by me and one by John Grant responding to the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Commemoration Project.
Michael Uhl is the author of Vietnam Awakening.
This article originally appeared on In the Mindfield.